Safety Tips for Photographing a Solar Eclipse

In Landscape/Nature by Kevin D. Jordan

A solar eclipse is one of the great spectacles of nature. A total solar eclipse in particular, although brief, could be a once in a lifetime experience for some people, which makes capturing a photo of it all the more enticing. Along with the excitement of experiencing the event, however, comes the need to take a variety of precautions. So, after consulting the many resources available for capturing a photo of your own of such a unique event, take a look at the list below to make sure you are prepared to keep yourself and your loved ones safe enough that you can properly enjoy the experience of seeing a solar eclipse in person.

Eye Safety

Damage to your eyes and vision is the number one threat when it comes to a solar eclipse. Looking directly at the sun during any phase of an eclipse aside from totality will damage your eyes, potentially causing temporary or permanent blindness. It is imperative that if you want to look at the eclipse during the partial phases of the eclipse (or simply at the sun when it is entirely unobscured like on a regular day), you need to look through a solar filter.

Solar filters can come in many forms. You can buy solar film fairly inexpensively and hold it up to your eyes when looking at the sun, or you can buy solar viewing glasses, often called “eclipse glasses,” which conveniently use the solar film as glasses lenses.  The issue is that not all eclipse glasses are created equal, and whenever a solar eclipse rolls around—especially one that will pass through populated areas, thereby creating high demand for a large number of people potentially viewing it—there is a high chance for getting a product that does not meet the appropriate safety standards. And when it comes to keeping your vision safe, that uncertainty is not something you can afford to risk.

As of this writing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a web page listing known reputable makers of safe eclipse glasses, which it defines as “companies with which members of the AAS Solar Eclipse Task Force have had prior (and positive!) experience as well as companies whose products have been certified safe by authorities we recognize and whose certification we have confirmed to be genuine.” The website stresses that a manufacturer of eclipse glasses not included on their list does not necessarily mean they are not safe, but that their safety was not yet verified. And given how inexpensive eclipse glasses are and how valuable your eyesight is, I personally would not bother risking getting an ineffective pair.

Meade is one of the manufacturers of eclipse glasses approved by NASA.

The popularity of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse brought an influx of unverifiable (with regard to safety) and potentially counterfeit glasses to consumers. The problem got bad enough that Amazon began crediting customer accounts and emailing customers because glasses listed on their website as being “CE and ISO certified” (which is important) were, at best, poorly labeled as such and, at worst, not actually compliant with the correct standards. For those looking to keep their eyes safe for the 2017 eclipse and beyond, be sure that the glasses you are using will keep your eyes safe. And keep in mind, regular sunglasses are NOT sufficient for preventing eye damage.

And, in case you don’t make it to the next section, DO NOT look through your camera’s viewfinder, or the eyepieces of binoculars, spotting scopes, or telescopes without ensuring that there is a solar filter affixed to the equipment you are using first.

Camera Safety

While you cannot put a price tag on your eyesight and the eyesight of your loved ones, you can put a price tag on your camera gear, and it probably is not a terribly small price tag. While the sun can damage your vision, it also has the potential to do damage to your camera equipment. For those planning on taking a wide angle shot of the eclipse, you might be able to get away with not using a solar filter on your camera, given that overall energy focused on your sensor and other internal parts of your camera will be lower than with telephoto shots. However, once you begin zooming in and filling up your frame with the sun, the same rule that applies to your eyes applies to your camera: get a solar filter in between the sun and the front of your gear. You can buy expensive options that screw onto the front of your lens or simply buy a piece of solar film and decide how to attach it on your own. Regardless, make sure you protect your gear as much as you protect yourself.

My plan for shooting the 2017 solar eclipse is simply to use a piece of solar film to cover the front of my lens when I want my camera to be pointed at the sun. This way, I will be able to easily switch it between my two setups and remove it during totality (when it is safe to look at the eclipse without eye protection). This method is not foolproof, however. If I keep switching the filter back and forth between my two setups and forget to replace lens caps, I’ll risk leaving my cameras pointed directly at the sun and having some fried internal components on my hands as a result.  Whatever system you decide on, try not to get so enthralled by the eclipse that you ruin your gear.

Travel Safety

The path of a solar eclipse can hit any area on Earth (not to be confused with all solar eclipses being visible from everywhere on Earth). At some point, every spot on Earth has seen the effects of an eclipse. However, as the world gets more crowded, the ability to travel to view an eclipse may get more and more complex.

The August 21, 2017 eclipse, in particular, will be visible in a path across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina and the predictions of how many people will attempting to view the path of totality vary widely. In reality, the 2017 total solar eclipse has no precedent.

Towns that are normally equipped to serve a few hundred people may need to be equipped to serve tens of thousands. Roads built to allow 1,000 cars to pass in an hour may see 10,000 or more cars pass in an hour before and after the eclipse. Traffic and emergency planners are expecting historic traffic jams. Personally, I have every intention of driving from Washington to Oregon and back for the eclipse, but if I see apocalyptic levels of traffic when I get on the road to travel to my destination, I may just cancel my plans.

That said, there is also a chance I get surprised by the severity of traffic and get stuck on the road for many hours longer than planned. If that is the case, I am going to need to have extra food, extra water, and plenty of gas to make sure I do not get stranded. In addition, cellular service may be unreliable, so I am planning to carry paper maps to make sure I can get where I need to go. As populations continue to grow, the ability to move freely in small amounts of time for events such as a total solar eclipse may become limited. If you find yourself planning to travel to see a solar eclipse, imagine the worst-case scenario (running out of food, water, gas, or time) and prepare for it just in case.

And, this should go without saying, but I unfortunately know I have to say it anyway: DO NOT try to view the eclipse while driving. You are operating a 2-ton piece of metal at high speed that could easily kill you and/or other people if you let yourself be distracted. Keep your eyes on the road.

Location Planning

Many people viewing a solar eclipse may be doing so from their backyard, or at least in an area they are familiar with. However, for those traveling to unfamiliar locales, be sure to acquaint yourself with local laws, weather, and wildlife. For the 2017 total solar eclipse, the path of totality will cross the United States during summertime, and heat could be a serious factor. Even worse, that heat could correspond with wildfire season in many dry areas, potentially creating risks of fire. Similarly, wildlife may also be a factor to consider if you intend to visit an area you are unfamiliar with. Where I am from, our biggest wildlife concerns are typically ticks or the occasional moose or black bear. However, if I travel somewhere with risks from snakes and grizzly bears, I am going to want to make sure I know how to act if I encounter one.

Final Thoughts

At the time of this writing, I have never witnessed a total solar eclipse.  I hope that changes extremely soon, but given the unprecedented nature of the 2017 total solar eclipse, there are a variety of factors that could potentially stand in my way.  For those looking to view or photography the solar eclipse in 2017 or beyond, be sure to do the proper planning beforehand.  With and event so special, you do not want to have memories spoiled if something goes wrong from lack of planning.

With all that said, Mother Nature is going to put on a show.  Kick back and enjoy!


About the Author

Kevin D. Jordan

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Kevin D. Jordan is a landscape and night sky photographer based in Boston, Massachusetts. You can normally find him staying out all night chasing the Milky Way, capturing scenes around New England, and/or eating a truly gratuitous amount of pizza. You can follow his work on Facebook, on Instagram @kevindjordanphoto, and at www.kevindjordan.com.